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150 years: In October 1867, Russia handed over Alaska to an expanding U.S.

Russian Alaska

News-Miner opinion: The Southeast Alaska community of Sitka was the center of the territory’s future 150 years ago today. It was on Oct. 18, 1867 that the United States took position of the territory from Russia, a transaction that occurred as the result of a purchase agreement concluded between the two nations in March of that year.

Alaska has come a long way since then. But on this day, it is worth re-creating a bit of the history through the reports of the day.

It was in August 1867, for example, that Secretary of State William H. Seward, who secured the purchase of Alaska from Russia at a price of $7.2 million, issued his instructions to the man who would become the first overseer of the new U.S. possession, Brig. Gen. Lovell H. Rousseau. 

Secretary Seward began his Aug. 7, 1867 dispatch to Gen. Rousseau as follows:

“General: You will herewith receive the warrant of the president, under the great seal of the United States, appointing you commissioner on behalf of this government, to receive from a similar officer appointed on behalf of the imperial government of Russia, the territory ceded by that government to the United States, pursuant to the treaty of the 30th of March last.

“On arriving at Sitka, the principal town in the ceded territory, you will receive from the Russian commissioner the formal transfer of that territory, under mutual salutes from artillery, in which the United States will take the lead….”

The secretary continued with detailed instructions on what types of property would come into U.S. possession and what would remain private. He wrote of the holdings of the Greco-Russian church and what the Russian-American Co. would be allowed to do to wind down its operations.

And he concluded with a comment about relations between the U.S. and Russia.

“It is expected that, in the transaction of the important business hereby entrusted to you, it will be borne in mind that, in making the cession of the territory referred to, his Imperial Majesty the Emperor of all the Russias has been actuated by a desire of giving a signal proof of that friendship for the United States which has characterized his own reign and that of his illustrious predecessors. It is hoped, therefore, that all your intercourse with the Russian commissioner will be friendly, courteous and frank. This department understands from the president that, upon the conclusion of the business with the Russian commissioner, you will have command in the territory, to be exercised under the orders of the war department.”

Gen. Rousseau supplied a quite lengthy report to Secretary Seward dated Dec. 5, 1867, detailing the transfer ceremony — as well as some of his difficulty in reaching Sitka, known as New Archangel, or Novo-Arkhangelsk, under Russian rule, and the bureaucratic work of the transfer itself, such as taking inventory of the holdings in Sitka.

“...We cast anchor in the harbor of New Archangel on the 18th of October, at eleven o’clock a m., where we found the troops and supplies had preceded us several days. The day was bright and beautiful. We landed immediately, and fixed the hour of three and a half o’clock that day for the transfer...

“The command of General Davis, about two hundred and fifty strong, in full uniform, armed and handsomely equipped, were landed about three o’clock, and marched up to the top of the eminence on which stands the governor’s house, where the transfer was to be made. At the same time a company of Russian soldiers were marched to the ground, and took their place upon the left of the flag-staff, from which the Russian flag was then floating. The command of General Davis was formed under his direction on the right. The United States flag to be raised on the occasion was in care of a color guard — a lieutenant, a sergeant and ten men of General Davis’ command...

“...the ceremony was begun by lowering the Russian flag. As it began its descent down the flag staff the battery of the Ossipee, with large nine-inch guns, led off in the salute, peal after peal crashing and re-echoing in the gorges of the surrounding mountains, answered by the Russian water battery (a battery on the wharf) firing alternately...

“The United States flag (the one given to me for that purpose, by your direction, at Washington) was then properly attached and began its ascent, hoisted by my private secretary, George Lovell Rousseau, and again the salutes were fired as before, the Russian water battery leading off. The flag was so hoisted that in the instant it reached its place the report of the last big gun of the Ossipee reverberated from the mountains around. The salutes being completed, Captain Pestchouroff stepped up to me and said: ‘General Rousseau, by authority from his Majesty, the Emperor of Russia, I transfer to the United States the Territory of Alaska,’ and in as few words I acknowledged the acceptance of the transfer, and the ceremony was at an end.”

The U.S. issued a check to Russia on Aug. 1, 1868. The Russians cashed it two weeks later.

Today we celebrate Alaska Day, 150 years as a possession of the United States.

 Information and documents about the 150th anniversary of the Alaska purchase and transfer can be found at the Alaska Historical Society website at this shortened address: http://bit.ly/2zwTwzs. Here is the society’s main website: alaskahistoricalsociety.org

Here is a shortened link to the Library of Congress website about the Alaska purchase: http://bit.ly/2hNC3uE

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